IT's most wanted: Mainframe programmers

As students study other technologies, vendors try to develop new talent and offer tools to fill the gap for these critical systems

Before tablets, smartphones, and PCs became prominent, "big iron" mainframes led down the path to computing, becoming a staple of enterprise business worldwide several decades ago. Rather than going the way of the dinosaur as PCs and the client/server model emerged, mainframes remain stalwarts in heavy-duty transactional applications. "The mainframe is alive and well and still powers the global economy," says Dayton Semerjian, general manager for mainframes at CA Technologies, which focuses on mainframe technologies. He notes that 80 percent of the Fortune 500 still use them.

But many mainframe personnel are set to retire in coming years, and fewer students interested in learning how to work with these systems. That could lead to a skills shortage for managing and maintaining the mainframes that run so many critical applications.

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The mainframe's staying power in the age of tiny computers is all about its performance for high-volume transactions and its strengths in security and virtualization. The superiority of the platform "has remained unmatched," says Semerjian.

Mainframes are being used for core business processes within financial services, banking, and health care, says Paul Vallely, a sales director at Compuware, which offers mainframe applications. They also are becoming useful in cloud computing, he adds: "The mainframe is turning into a giant data server to be able to provide cloud applications with information they need."

Mainframe skills are on the minds of enterprises. A Compuware survey of 520 CIOs in large enterprises found that 71 percent are concerned that this looming skills shortage will hurt their businesses, with applications and productivity at risk. After all, 78 percent said mainframe applications will remain a key business asset during the next decade. And the price for not having the right IT resources is huge: One minute of mainframe outages can cost nearly $14,000 in lost revenue for an average enterprise, Compuware said.

Compuware expects 40 percent of today's 2 million Cobol programmers -- a key segment of mainframe programmers -- to retire in the coming years. Rival CA Technologies concurs: "The pioneers of the mainframe are the Baby Boomers," says CA's Semerjian. "Starting this year, the Baby Boomers are going into retirement."

Mainframes need programmers -- who are paid well
Programming skills are vital to mainframes' continued use, Vallely notes, not just system skills, which are more available. "These mainframe apps have decades of modifications and complexities built into them" and need experienced programmers to keep running effectively. As a result, those willing to work on mainframes earn more than if they work with other platforms, he says.

Mainframes have relied on Cobol and assembler as their programming languages. But these days, not a lot of people are teaching these languages or mainframe management, Semerjian says. Meanwhile, today's university students are preoccupied with learning newer technologies such as .Net and Java. "Despite the fact that [mainframe] apps are core to so many large businesses, to newer programmers there's not as much sizzle in learning mainframe programming," Vallely says.

Vendors addressing the mainframe skills gap
Despite this looming gap, only recently have universities and companies placed an emphasis on developing mainframe skills, Vallely says.

CA, Compuware, and IBM all are seeking to address the skills gap with educational programs and/or tools. For example, CA's mainframe management product, CA Mainframe Chorus, features a graphical interface and knowledge capture intended to modernize the mainframe experience to appeal to today's programmers and require less upfront knowledge.

Compuware helps customers with their internal training programs and offers a staffing service. It also provides tools such as Xpediter for debugging and analyzing mainframe applications, as well as File-Aid for file and data management and data analysis.

IBM's Academic Initiative for System Z mainframes enables schools to teach System Z and assists with skills development, to create a pool of mainframe programmers and systems engineers for its customers.

IBM opens the mainframe to contemporary Linux
Another approach to deal with the looming mainframe skills shortage is to move mainframes to modern operating systems. For example, IBM's z/OS is no longer the only game in town when it comes to IBM mainframe operating systems; these mainframes can now run the more contemporary Linux OS. IDC analyst Jean Bozman says that, as of its last check in 2009, 30 percent of all System Z mainframes ship with at least one Linux instance, known as Integrated Facility for Linux.

This story, "IT's most wanted: Mainframe programmers," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in the data center at For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.